It’s truly amazing how far DNA technology has come.
The DNA of extinct humans can be retrieved from sediments in caves – even in the absence of skeletal remains.
Researchers found the genetic material in sediment samples collected from seven archaeological sites.
Back in the lab, they fished out tiny fragments of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) – genetic material from the mitochondria, which act as the “powerhouses” of biological cells. Even sediment samples that had been stored at room temperature for years yielded DNA.
Dr Meyer and his team members were able to identify the DNA of various animals belonging to 12 mammalian families, including extinct species such as the woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, cave bear and cave hyena.
The scientists looked specifically for DNA from ancient humans in the samples.
“From the preliminary results, we suspected that in most of our samples, DNA from other mammals was too abundant to detect small traces of human DNA,” said co-author Viviane Slon, from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.
“We then switched strategies and started targeting specifically DNA fragments of human origin.”